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Suspect in Strangling Pleads Not Guilty : Crime: The body of Najat Chehade, 26, was found dumped off a road near Ojai in December. Louis Hayden Gary, 42, was arrested in Idaho.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 42-year-old man suspected of strangling his roommate with a cord and dumping her body off a road near Ojai in December pleaded not guilty to murder in Ventura County Municipal Court on Friday morning.

Louis Hayden Gary, 42, of Los Angeles was arrested a week ago in Boise, Ida., in connection with the murder of 26-year-old Najat Chehade after Ventura County sheriff’s detectives traced his path across the country, authorities said. He remains in the Ventura County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail, a jail spokesman said.

Chehade’s body was discovered about 10:40 a.m. Dec. 17 on the side of California 33 by a Sheriff’s Department employee who was taking inmates to the Rose Valley Work Camp, authorities said.

Chehade had been strangled with a cord 16 to 17 hours earlier, Ventura County Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Harwell said. There was evidence of sexual intercourse, authorities said.

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It appeared that her body was dumped off the side of the road after dark, and whoever dumped it probably intended it to roll farther down the embankment, Harwell said.

Detectives, who at first were stymied in efforts to find friends or acquaintances of Chehade, said they traced her address to a Los Angeles apartment that she shared with Gary.

Chehade had known Gary for five years and had been staying in his Los Angeles apartment since November, Deputy Dist. Atty. Carol J. Nelson said.

Gary, who became the primary suspect in the case, left the area after Ventura County sheriff’s detectives interviewed him in January.

He sold his car, bought another car under an assumed name and converted all of his money into traveler’s checks, authorities said.

Gary was arrested after Boise police spotted the car with Nevada license plates at a car wash. Gary, who was lying in the front seat to vacuum his car, was arrested without incident. Sheriff’s detectives returned with Gary on Monday.

But Gary’s lawyer said Gary may have left the area because he was disoriented from the medicine he was taking to combat severe bouts of depression.

Gary left a trail making it extremely easy to find him and would not have done so if it had been his intention to flee from authorities, attorney Louis Milton Signer said.

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Gary is a computer programmer who had designed, installed and serviced computer systems, Signer said. He used the apartment, a holdover from before he was married, as a place to sleep when he was working on long-term assignments in downtown Los Angeles. He would sometimes work 24 hours straight, sleep for eight hours and go back to work, Signer said.

He also shared a house in Los Angeles County with his wife and two stepchildren, Signer said.

He and his wife had had marital problems, partly because of Gary’s depression, but had not filed for separation, Signer said. The couple had begun seeing a psychiatrist for therapy sessions.

He said that Gary was friends with Chehade and was trying to give her some help. Signer, who has known Gary for about seven years, described him as very intelligent, gentle and caring. He said he was concerned with the environment and people.

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“Any kind of violence would be out of character,” Signer said.


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